[Women’s History Month] Meet Dr Betty Wright Harris, inventor of test that detects explosives

Bridget Boakye March 05, 2018

March is the Women’s History Month celebrated globally to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. The month corresponds with the International Women’s Day which is marked globally on March 8.

As part of Face2Face Africa’s commitment to informing and connecting black people around the world, we have resolved to devote each day of the month of March to celebrate black women inventors and to highlight their inventions.

We have Dr Betty Wright Harris to thank immensely for our safety. She is the inventor of the “sensitive spot test” which detects the presence of 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6 trinitrobeneze (TATB). The test is used by both military as well as private industry, and the Department of Homeland Security uses the test to screen for nitroaromatic explosives. Harris received a patent for the invention in 1986.

Dr Betty Wright Harris is the 7th of 12 children. She was born on July 29th, 1940 on a farm located along the banks of the Ouachita River in Louisiana. She enrolled in college at the age of 16 and received her bachelor of science from Southern University at the age of 19. She then attended Atlanta University, another Historic Black College, for her Masters of Science. In 1975, she received her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Her career spans more than four decades. After working as an assistant professor of chemistry and mathematics at Mississippi Valley State University, Southern University and Colorado College, she worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for two decades. There, she worked in high explosives research and development (R&D) and environmental management and restoration.

During a leave of absence from LANL, Dr. Harris worked as chief of chemical technology for Solar Turbine Inc. At Solar Turbine, she managed the technical laboratories and investigated cold-end corrosion of super alloys. She then worked at the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Classification for 11 years as a certified document reviewer. Her office decided which information may compromise U.S. homeland security and which could be released to the public.

Dr. Harris is a 50-year member of the American Chemical Society and a distinguished African American Scientist by the National Academy of Sciences. She is also a member of the women in Science and Engineering and the American Society For The Advancement of Science. She has served as the President Of The New Mexico Business and Professional Women’s Organization. In 1999, she received a governor’s award for Outstanding New Mexico Women for her achievements.

An advocate for science education, she says, “As a nation we must continue to provide a comprehensive and competitive education in science and engineering for our young people. We must always encourage and support them, for without research and development, progress in technology and information transfer will not occur.”  She worked with the Girl Scouts to develop a chemistry badge that is similar to the chemistry merit badge for Boy Scouts.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: March 5, 2018


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